Google’s decision to ban all ads relating to the abortion referendum is a significant departure for the tech multinational and an important moment in the referendum campaign.
It is a blow to the No side, which had planned an intensification of an already heavy online advertising campaign in the closing weeks of the campaign before polling day on May 25th.
The spokesman for the Save the Eighth campaign John McGuirk railed against Google’s decision, at a joint press conference with other retain campaigners.
They insisted that Google’s decision – which takes the unprecedented step of banning all ads, including those from Irish citizens and campaigns – amounts to “foreign interference”, by depriving the retain campaign of one of its most important platforms.
If you wanted further evidence of whom the Google move favours, look no further than the reaction of Yes campaigners and supporters
However, Irish-based campaigners still have the option of advertising on Facebook, as well as diverting the campaign's resources into postering and other advertising.
But there is no doubt that the move is a significant blow to the campaign. Since last year its strategists had planned a wave of late online advertising targeting undecided and soft Yes voters.
If you wanted further evidence of whom the Google move favours, look no further than the reaction of Yes campaigners and supporters, who wholeheartedly welcomed and applauded the decision.
The reasons for the decision, however, remain a mystery. Google declined to supply any rationale, or to answer a series of detailed questions from The Irish Times.
What is certainly true is that it is a departure by the company, which has never done anything like this before, and indicates its sensitivity to charges of interference, or even wielding undue power in the democratic process.
The Google decision came 24 hours after Facebook took a less drastic step, banning ads from foreign entities.
There is growing alarm among Yes campaigners, and their supporters in the media, that the online spending by the No side could lead to that surge
Facebook declined to elaborate on its decision or to supply details of any ads cancelled, or ad revenue earned to date in the referendum campaign. However, several people familiar with the internet giants – and who are in regular contact with them – who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity on Wednesday, believe that Google and Facebook became fearful in the past week that if the referendum was defeated, they would be the subject of an avalanche of blame and further scrutiny of their role in election campaigns.
That is not scrutiny that either company would welcome.
Several developments in the past week may have prompted these fears. The polls have continued to tighten, though still consistently show a strong Yes lead, and no sign of the surge that the No side needs to turn it around.
However, there is growing alarm among Yes campaigners, and their supporters in the media, that the online spending by the No side could lead to that surge. And the internet companies will have been aware of the exact extent of the No spending. Any or all of these may have prompted Google and Facebook to think: “what if the referendum is defeated? Will we be blamed by Yes campaigners and the media?”
Both companies have senior executives in Dublin who used to work in government, and take advice from public affairs consultants. Though without a full and honest explanation from the companies, it is impossible to say for sure what prompted the move.
What we can say with confidence is that it has delivered a major blow to the No campaign. If there is to be a late surge for No that changes the trajectory of the referendum, it will not be driven by ads on Google or YouTube.